For Wanjiru and Putu
Photography by Asia-Vinae “Preach” Palmer
Photos by Asia-Vinae “Preach” Palmer : “The Sister Houses” – Abandoned houses in New Orleans have stories. They are more powerful than the rust that coats the iron gates and more alive than the vines coating the sides of the building. This location is in the middle of Treme and Uptown New Orleans, it is in the heart of the city. Two houses are juxtaposed neighbors, one still has a chance to be refurbished and reoccupied, and the other has been overtaken with decay and overgrown foliage. They remain beautiful in their own ways.
Mwende Katwiwa: I always wished I was more like my mom. Growing up, I saw her as the calmest wave in an ocean of possibilities while I felt like a kerosene filled pool someone had tossed a flamethrower into. It was hard for me to connect with her as a girl. Part of that was because I was so disconnected from my ‘girlhood’ which by extension, disconnected me from her ‘womanhood’. Another part, one that I would realize the older I got, had to do with how different our energies were. I’ve always described my mom as having the light, gentle kind of spirit and energy that “makes Ghandi look bad” and I never meant it as an exaggeration. I would need to sit for an afternoon to think of a time that someone was upset with my mom for something. To think of a time when she wasn’t considering others over herself. Of a time that she didn’t make everyone’s burdens feel lighter simply by sharing herself with them. My whole life I’ve felt my own spirit sit heavy and uncomfortably in my body. I’ve felt it negotiate freedom with my bones and rational brain and many times, when it hasn’t like the terms of the agreement, it’s escaped in destructive ways. All throughout my growing years I felt overflowing and consumed with something and was prone to random outbursts that I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. My parents tell me that even as a young girl in Kenya, I used to cause or get into trouble but whenever anyone questioned me about why I misbehaved I would never explain myself, only say ‘kwasababu ya margino’ (‘because of pride’ ).
As I got older and realized my youthful explanation of pride was not enough to explain what I was experiencing, I began to look into myself for the source of all of my internal turmoil so I could find healthy ways to get through it that would allow me and those around me to live in peace. I was really close with my dad during this time because he has a very similar temperament and knew how to tend to my flames. Though I burned him at times, my dad and I developed a critical relationship centered on soft masculinity and emotional understanding that has shaped so much of my understanding of self. At the same time, this made it hard for me to be around my mom. Though she never intended it, her seemingly unbreakable calm felt invalidating to my emotional existence. After a while I realized I was depressed, and destructive and a lot of people folks (including my parents) had expectations of me that I couldn’t see myself surviving through, so I left home before my senior year of high school.
A year later I was not really in contact with my family, but as I was preparing to gradate from high school and think about my future plans, I began to hear my mom’s voice whispering things about a sense of home she once felt the times she was in New Orleans. I left for the city less than a month later after my 18th birthday. The next year was an intense period of self-reflection and (re)discovery that allowed me to discover parts of myself I had never known were within me. Parts of myself that reminded me of my mom. My whole life I’ve been described as my father’s daughter, but the more I came into my myself, the more I was able to see how much of my mother was in me too.
It can be hard coming from a woman who seems so perfectly stitched together when you spend most of your time feeling like a loose thread about to unravel what could have been something great. In the last five years though, I have gotten to know more about my mom than I had in the 17 years before. I’ve asked her questions I never dreamed I could growing up about herself now, her past self and she has answered them with the honesty of a woman who cares less about perception and more about connection. These days I see her flaws in a way I didn’t (or never wanted to) growing up and I love her that much more for them. I still reach out to her whenever I need her to be the wave of calm in my life I knew growing up, but these days I have learned to see her as the ocean she has always been.
Denisio Truitt: In my youth I was in awe of my mother. Her tall statuesque frame, her flawless skin, her cheekbones. The way she spoke “proper” English with the whisper of an accent around its edges. The graceful way she held a cigarette. The long letters she would write to her sisters and friends in neat almost dainty penmanship. In spite of the country I was born to, a country which seemingly either fetishizes or abhors black skin my African mother was for me the ideal of beauty and intelligence. She was perfect.
I can remember being 12 or 13 and coming across an elegant African print dress my mother had since she was a newlywed. It was blue and patterned with peacocks and flowers. It was meant to hug the entire body and then flare out and spill onto the floor like cascading water. I remember standing in the bathroom trying to put it on, the fabric struggling against my muscular legs and already widening hips and not being able to zip up past my ribcage. The zipper tore away from its seam and I started to cry. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t be her. Why my nose jutted from my face like a beak instead of her dainty button one. Why her arms looked lean yet strong in sleeveless tops while mine felt more like a body builder’s. Why she could effortlessly do mathematical calculations in her mind while 3rd grade division eluded me. It baffled me how such an imperfect child could come from a perfect woman.
It’s crazy how frustrated I was in my youth at my mother. Because now with adult eyes I can see that her life was not beautiful fishtail gowns and parties. My mother had a hard life. She came to the United States barely out of her teens, a new bride in a strange country. Her marriage with my father ended (a pain I would also experience firsthand) and “single black mother with no college education” became her new identity. We moved from our comfortable house to a small duplex in a trailer park. I was bullied at school daily for being one of two black kids and was called ‘nigger’ like it was my nickname. She worked her fingers to bone and then dust just to keep a roof over my head and food in my tummy and all the while shielding me from the truth. That she was scared. That she missed my father. That she was unsure of what would happen but was doing her absolute best, even when there were days she didn’t want to get out of bed.
My mother kept going. She went back to school in her 30’s and graduated from The University of Maryland. She started a career that she loves. And a few years ago she bought her first home. My mother is not without her faults and flaws. We are not necessarily as close as some mothers and daughters. We’ve had spaces of time where we did not speak. But none of that can take away the unconditional respect I have for her. I admire her now not just for her beauty as I naively did in my youth but also for her unrelenting strength and endurance. She LIVED. She SURVIVED. And all of it, ALL OF IT, was for me. So that I would go on to live and survive in a world that seeks to eradicate and erase black women.
I’ve never loved anyone like that. I’ve never so readily taken on the responsibility of another person’s life and then given every piece of myself for their happiness and well being. At times its hard for me to even fathom. All I can do is be grateful and thrive and bloom and, once in a while, make her proud.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora